A Brief Encounter: Pope Francis and Our Deepening Journey of Nonviolence

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Archbishop Jorge Bergoglio’s decision to take the name “Francis” when he became pope in 2013 was a breathtaking choice.  By assuming St. Francis of Assisi’s name—the first pontiff to do so—he instantly signaled his spiritual and practical commitment to the well-being of our fragile planet and its inhabitants, and to embody this commitment in a profoundly pastoral and nonviolent way. 

As it became increasingly clear that Bergoglio would be elected during the papal enclave in the Sistine Chapel, Cardinal Cláudio Hummes turned to him and said, “Don’t forget the poor.”  The new pope later remarked, “That struck me… the poor… Immediately I thought of St. Francis of Assisi. Francis was a man of peace, a man of poverty, a man who loved and protected creation.”  The pope’s namesake vividly symbolizes living the Christian life to the full while, at the same time, integrating three of the monumental challenges we face today: the culture of violence, the global climate crisis, and systemic economic inequality. 

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Since his installation, Pope Francis has dramatically engaged each of these challenges by tirelessly critiquing the economic order that produces widespread involuntary poverty and a widening gap between the rich and the poor; by promulgating Laudato Si’, his ground-breaking encyclical on the environment; and by actively pursuing peace and nonviolence in a world shattered by war and widespread destruction.

The Nonviolent Journey

Over the past four years, a growing, worldwide movement has offered steady support for Pope Francis’ boldly prophetic stance for peace and nonviolence. Pace e Bene collaborated with partners around the world to help organize the landmark “Nonviolence and Just Peace” conference co-sponsored by the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and Pax Christi International in Rome in April, 2016. This powerful assembly of theologians, practitioners and church leaders from every continent issued a final statement entitled, “An Appeal to the Catholic Church to Re-Commit to the Centrality of Gospel Nonviolence.”  To help move this work forward, the Catholic Nonviolence Initiative (CNI) was formed, which John Dear and I—with colleagues around the world—have been part of ever since.

 In 2017, Pope Francis issued an historic World Day of Peace message entitled, “Nonviolence: A Style of Politics for Peace,” a theme that participants of the 2016 conference had proposed.  After meetings with Vatican officials, CNI launched an ambitious, global research project to develop theological and practical resources to support Church teaching on Gospel nonviolence.  In 2019, CNI co-sponsored another international consultation in Rome with the Vatican’s Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, which presented the Holy See with the findings of this research.

The Catholic Nonviolence Initiative is working relentlessly to promote nonviolence by organizing conferences at Catholic universities, holding regional gatherings, creating pastoral resources for parishes and dioceses, developing theological and scriptural resources, and supporting nonviolent action for a more just, peaceful and healed world.

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The Common Good in the Digital Age

In the midst of this ongoing work, Marie Dennis, the immediate past co-president of Pax Christi International, was invited to facilitate a session on peacebuilding as part of the Vatican’s landmark conference September 26-28, 2019 in Rome on “The Common Good and the Digital Age.”  I also received an invitation (and helped in a supporting role with Marie’s session). 

It was a unique encounter between Church leaders and representatives of technology companies (including Facebook, Google, Microsoft, LinkedIn, and Mozilla, but also a series of “social impact” start-ups), a Nobel laureate, government officials, diplomats, Catholic ethicists, and what Time magazine named “a smattering of academics.”  I suppose that’s where I fitted in, representing DePaul University in Chicago, where I teach in the Peace, Justice and Conflict Studies Program. 

The participants from around the world focused on the social, ethical and political implications of an increasingly digital global society.  (I was most intrigued by the techies who are seeking to move “blockchain” from the realm of cryptocurrency to a platform offering people who live without documentation – e.g., millions of people in refugee camps around the world – ta way to establish an enduring and portable identity.  I definitely need to know more before fully getting behind such projects!)

Pope Francis addressed the conference on the second day.  We walked from the conference hall (at the Jesuit Curia, the headquarters of the Society of Jesus, adjacent to St. Peter’s Square) to an ornate meeting hall in the Apostolic Palace, when the pope shared a beautiful reflection on the theme of the gathering with a focus on the dignity of the human person. He urged us to exercise “creative fidelity” to principles and traditions, thinking always of the common good: “The problems you have been called upon to analyze concern all humanity and require solutions that can be extended to all of humanity.”

A Momentary Encounter

After his presentation, we had an opportunity to meet Pope Francis.

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As we shook hands, I told Pope Francis that I have a ten-year-old daughter named Leah and that we are deeply grateful for his leadership on nonviolence. I then handed him a book edited by Marie Dennis entitled, Choosing Peace: The Catholic Church Returns to Nonviolence.  He took it into his two hands and – instead of immediately handing it to an assistant, as he is wont to do when given things – thoughtfully looked at the cover, which has a beautiful icon of Jesus.  He seemed curious about it, so I explained that it was the fruit of the conference on nonviolence that the Vatican had sponsored in 2016, and was the work of the Catholic Nonviolence Initiative. After he flipped through the pages, I respectfully asked him to share with the world an encyclical on nonviolence.  He did not respond directly, but his eyes beamed warmly, and I was grateful to have a moment of communion with this pastor who spends his days relentlessly nurturing peace and nonviolence in our fragile world. 

Then it was the next person’s time.

The Nonviolent Shift

At the end of the April conference on nonviolence at the Vatican, one of the Catholic bishops stood and declared, “We need to mainstream nonviolence in the Church. We need to move it from the margins of Catholic thought to the center.  Nonviolence is a spirituality, a lifestyle, a program of societal action, and a universal ethic.”

Nonviolence does not begin in perfection.  It grapples with one’s violence even as it moves toward a more just, peaceful and nonviolent way of being. With Pope Francis’s ongoing invitation to nonviolence, we are called to conversion, transformation, and healing in our lives, our church, and our world, even as we are called to live the spirit of mercy and constructive action for change, always and everywhere.

Pope Francis has long spoken of the need for a “culture of encounter.” I am grateful for this brief encounter in a time when the pope and so many others are inviting us to the power and possibility of the nonviolent life.

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